When I was barely a teenager my father decided to make me into a printer. He consequently set me up with an Adana 8×5 hand plattern press with all the necessary leads, type, furniture, galley, composing stick, chases, quoins and ink. It only remained for me to learn the art of printing, and art is the word rather than science. Trade would be an even more appropriate word, but I was only an amateur, not a tradesman.
It is hard to imagine in these days of digital typesetting how laborious and time consuming even a short line of type could be. I am talking of hand setting type, not using Linotype or other machine typesetting system which was reserved for large quantity jobs (like newspapers), though even Linotype was complicated compared to sitting at a computer keyboard. Hand setting was still common when I was growing up, and I am not talking about amateurs like me either, but commercial jobbing printers who you could find on most high streets. I will try and take you through the processes involved in setting just one line of type. It is a very old process, dating back centuries to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg six hundred years ago.
The composing stick is simple piece of equipment consisting of two lengths of metal at right angles. Originally (I am sure) they would have been made of wood. Starting at the left you place the types with the nick (half way down the side) uppermost. In this way you may immediately see that the letters are all the same way up (upside down). I will not take you through the whole process including line justification, inserting leads and (wooden) furniture, producing the forme, using the galley, locking up the chase, rolling out the ink to taking the first pull. What I have outlined so far should give you some idea of the complexity of what my father set out to teach me. It did not help that he was as ignorant as I was.
However he entered into the spirit of the trade with gusto. For example, our holiday trips became ‘going on a Wayzgoose’ (the printers’ term for a day’s outing). My print jobs were almost all one sheet affairs, exceptionally printed on both sides, so the added intricacy of binding and imposition (the arrangement of the pages to get them in the right order when folded) did not concern me. Nevertheless, my father was keen to read up all about the trade he had selected for me, and he used the correct arcane language. It must have run in the family because my cousin Andrew had bought a huge old Albion press and was also learning to print, although his printing was mostly of the linocuts he produced.
The growth of computing has played havoc with the terminology of printing. For example the usage of the word font. For a start this an American word; the usual English spelling is fount. More to the point, the word is now used to mean what we would have called a typeface. A font (or fount) used to mean a set of types of a particular point size and including a set number of letters. Thus a fount would be (for example) 10 point Plantin italic, 5A 15a, 3B 9b etc.
The main part of my business was all the printing required for my father’s optician’s practice. This included business cards, compliment slips, letterheads, circulars, order forms and invoices. My father never used an outside printer again after setting me up with a press. I could not do all the printing he required, being at boarding school for much of the year, so he had to do a certain amount of press work himself. I think that I did most of the typesetting however. When he retired as an optician we continued to do our own printing for the instrument making business we set up. About the last print job I undertook was to produce the hymn sheets for my wedding when I got married in 1986.
My business was called The Trouser Press. I must say one or two things about the name. For a start you must be clear about my age – I was only eleven, so the name Trouser Press was not my own idea. I had never heard of a trouser press, but once the term was explained to me I thought it was rather a good name. Actually that isn’t true; I thought it rather a silly name when I wanted a grown-up sounding business with a grown-up sounding name. ‘Combined Enterprises’ was one I came up with. My father opened a bank account in the name the Trouser Press and for about ten years it was the only account I had. In the end I closed it, having discovered that while a personal bank account was free, a business account cost me money to run!.